2021
February
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Monitor Daily Podcast

February 25, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Real-life ‘Nomadland’ traveler finds resilience in pandemic America

Last year, North Carolina native Michelle Fishburne packed her belongings into an RV for a 10,000-mile cross-country trip. Her mission: to research a book about how the pandemic has changed ordinary Americans. (Read more about Michelle’s Who We Are Now project in today’s story about third acts.) 

“If I had to sum up what I’ve seen in the 250 to 300 interviews I’ve done, it’s pluck,” says Ms. Fishburne, who’s met homeless people, medical workers, teachers, judges, hairdressers, and even a performing clown on her journey. “Pluck is defined as ‘spirited and determined courage.’ That is what I’ve been seeing in person after person.”

During a stop in Columbia, Missouri, Ms. Fishburne met a 21-year-old student who exemplifies that quality. Ine’a Gregory recounted how she decided to do something impactful during lockdown. So she launched an e-commerce retailing business. The motto for her company, The Repertoire, is “Embrace the uncomfortable and walk with purpose.”

The majority of Ms. Fishburne’s new acquaintances feel more connected to other people than before the pandemic. “They have lifted their heads up from their previously busy lives and they are thinking about, and seeing, and caring about other people,” says the self-employed storyteller. That extends beyond family and friends. Americans are concerned about the well-being of others they’ve never met – including those across party lines. 

“I have heard those five little words – ‘I think about those people’ – over and over again,” she says.

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A new stage in the pandemic: cautious optimism

When can we drop our masks and swap smiles with strangers in public again? As cases and deaths plummet, some see signs for cautious optimism amid continuing vigilance. 

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Nearly one year after much of the nation abruptly shut down due to a little-understood virus, turning face masks into common attire and dousing the fires of the world’s largest economy, something new is emerging in America: a sense of cautious optimism.

Health experts say a number of factors are combining to dampen the spread, from widespread social distancing, to increasing immunity through vaccines or past exposure, to the turn of seasons toward spring. 

Not everyone is sure the country has reached an inflection point. The U.S. recently passed the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths. Case counts have dived before, only to rise again. Vigilance will remain needed. 

But the U.S. appears to be coming closer to control of the pandemic following a bleak winter, experts say. “Everything that we’re doing is finally working and kicking in,” says Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

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A new stage in the pandemic: cautious optimism

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Patrons enjoy lunch indoors at Gibsons Italia restaurant in Chicago on Jan. 27, 2021. Many states are beginning to ease coronavirus restrictions amid a drop in caseloads.

Like many Americans, Anthony Kellum is ready for the pandemic to be over. The Detroit-area real estate developer just wants to do usual things from his old life – attend baseball games, visit movie theaters, go out to dinner.

And he’s increasingly confident the usual may be within sight. Some extended family members, whom he largely hasn’t visited over the past year, have been vaccinated. He’s eager to be vaccinated himself, and he and his wife, Doreen, are optimistic enough that they’ve tentatively planned a summer family vacation.

“I just want to get back to normal,” he says.

But not everyone is sure the country has reached a COVID-19 inflection point. Vaccines aren’t yet available to everyone. Case counts have dived before, only to rise again. New variants are a possible danger. 

The U.S. recently passed the grim milestone of over 500,000 total deaths. And damage to the economy has taken a personal toll. Raemecca Evans lost her Cincinnati restaurant job early in the pandemic. She’s been unemployed since. “Normal” will mean going back to work, she says.

“I mean, it’s gotten better,” says Ms. Evans of the pandemic. But “it’s kind of touch-and-go, to me.”

Nearly one year after much of the nation abruptly shut down due to a little-understood virus, turning face masks into common attire and dousing the fires of the world’s largest economy, something new is emerging in America: a sense of cautious optimism.

The U.S. appears to be coming closer to control of the pandemic following a bleak winter, they say. But many experts warn that vigilance will still be necessary in the future. 

“I think we are at the beginning of the end, but not the end that everybody’s hoping for,” says Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist who ran the office on global health threats in the Clinton and second Bush White Houses.

A remarkable turnaround

The raw numbers have undergone a remarkable turnaround. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the daily number of new COVID-19 cases in the country peaked in early January at about 250,000 per day. As of late February, the rolling average had dropped to around 54,000 cases per day – its lowest level since mid-October. 

Deaths, which typically lag cases, have not fallen as fast. The seven-day rolling average of U.S. deaths was about 2,000 in late February, down from January’s peak of about 3,400, according to the CDC.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Dog trainer Steve Cabral stops in Richmond Hill, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2021, to rest his dogs during a business trip from Florida to Virginia. As the U.S. faces a potential turning point in the pandemic, Mr. Cabral is carrying one lesson forward: "Don't live in fear."

A number of interrelated factors have likely caused this decline, says Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

One is the passing of the holiday spikes caused by gatherings over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Another is a possible increase in wearing masks and adhering to social distancing, driven by the public’s realization that cases had risen to a very high level.

Since late December, the number of new cases among nursing home residents has fallen by 80%, coinciding with a vaccine rollout. That’s a much faster drop in cases than that experienced by the country as a whole.

Finally, the sheer number of Americans who have already had COVID-19 may be reducing the ability of the virus to spread in the general population, says Dr. Benjamin. While vaccinations have, as of late February, reached nearly 13% of the U.S. population, a much larger number of Americans, upwards of 35%, is estimated to have caught the virus at some point and developed resistance to a new infection.

Over the past year, America’s experience with the coronavirus has been like a roller coaster: spikes in caseloads, followed by plummets amid a tightening of restrictions. Then, as restrictions have eased, another rise.

That could happen again. America has a tendency to ease restrictions too soon, and shouldn’t repeat that mistake, says Dr. Benjamin.

But the more likely scenario is that the country is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, he says. Public health authorities have a better handle on what kind of restrictions work. Medical facilities have a better understanding of the virus and treatments. The percentage of the population that has been vaccinated is quickly increasing. 

“Everything that we’re doing is finally working and kicking in,” Dr. Benjamin says.

From fear to hope in California

This late-winter turnaround has produced shoots of hope, which have been especially welcome in regions that have had severe outbreaks, such as Los Angeles.

In California, all the trend lines are moving in the right direction, according to some health officials. “We’ve come to the other side of this terrible surge,” declared Los Angeles County health director Barbara Ferrer this week.

Ms. Ferrer is cautiously optimistic about the future. Los Angeles County is lifting restrictions on youth sports and elementary schools, as coronavirus cases have fallen below the cutoff limits set in state health and safety guidelines.

Parents in Santa Clarita, a sprawling suburb in the north part of the county, are excited that in-person school resumed this week at Mountainview Elementary. The school is on a hybrid schedule, and is bringing in different grades over the next two weeks.

“I can feel we have turned a corner,” says Mandy Meeks from her black Jeep Cherokee, after dropping off her second grader, Jamison. School is one sign. Business is another, she says. As a restaurant manager, Ms. Meeks anticipates limited indoor dining will soon be added to outdoor dining.

Mark Kavin, parent of a first grader at Mountainview, is “happy to have some normalcy,” he says. He and his wife, who both work full time, had to bring in a babysitter to help their daughter with school via Zoom.

The pandemic is headed in the right direction, says Mr. Kavin, citing vaccines. But he figures “masks will be here for years to come.”

What does “over” mean?

Given current trends, when will the pandemic be over? In the context of the coronavirus, what does the word “over” even mean? 

If “over” is defined as the date when vaccines will be so widely available that anyone who wants one will have easy access, the time is fast approaching – perhaps faster than many people think. White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that time could be mid-to-late May, or early June.

But there are many variables that could affect projections of when the risk of infections will fade. Dr. Benjamin notes that America is not an island. Many low-income countries have not started vaccinating yet, and their relatively higher number of new cases could increase the chances of a dangerous variant of the disease emerging. 

“We all want it to be over. And I think the news looks good,” says Dr. Bernard. “But news changes and I think we need to be careful.” 

“I’m going to head out this weekend”

No pandemic end is in sight, if “over” means forgotten. The coronavirus has been an overarching presence in a year that ranks as among the most tumultuous in American social and political history. It will be inextricably linked in memory with the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, the stark partisanship of the 2020 presidential election, and the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn that vote.

Brunswick, Georgia, is a long way from Washington, D.C. But Brunswick saw its own somber anniversary pass this week, one that coincides with the beginnings of the pandemic: the death in February of last year of a local runner, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was killed by three white vigilantes who falsely believed he had committed a crime. 

For local resident Keion Walthour, that spasm of racial violence began a cycle of fear and dislocation that was then exacerbated by a virus that ripped through Georgia’s minority communities at disproportionate rates.

Social circles, says Mr. Walthour, have been broken up. Distancing and masks have hampered relationships and family events. And life, in many respects, has dwindled to a lot of time spent on the front stoop of his small house near a paper mill, entertaining a smattering of friends in the open air. 

Mr. Walthour had heard news reports that infection and death rates were falling across the country, perhaps auguring a return to normal. As a result, he has begun turning daydreams of travel into plans, for the first time in a year.

“It’s a change,” he says. “I’ve lived in fear for a long time. But I’m going to head out this weekend. I’m not thinking of going to New York or anything, nothing too far. Maybe Jacksonville, hit some of my favorite eating places.”

He chuckles, “At this point, anywhere but Brunswick.”

This article was written by Peter Grier with reporting by Nick Roll in Cincinnati, Noah Robertson in Alexandria, Virginia, Francine Kiefer in Santa Clarita, California, and Patrik Jonsson in Brunswick, Georgia.

The Explainer

Urban transit took a pandemic wallop. Can it bounce back?

Like many Americans, I haven't used a subway in almost a year. The anticipated post-pandemic rise of public transportation is encouraging new thinking about how to invest in sustainable urban commuting.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters/File
A worker mops the floor as the MTA Subway closes overnight for cleaning and disinfecting during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York on May 7, 2020.

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Precipitous drops in ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic have ushered in a famine year for American public transit. Withered funding and reduced services have experts fearing diminished capacity for years to come – even a potential “carpocalypse” of congested roads looming ahead.

“The global transit ridership trend ... last year was bad across the globe. But in the U.S. it was a free fall,” says John Gahbauer, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. He found that average ridership decreased by 58% nationally between March and August of 2020. 

The road – or perhaps rail – to recovery will require federal investment alongside getting the pandemic under control. Though infrastructure spending isn’t cheap, experts say it can make cities more equitable and sustainable. The more options residents have when traveling, the more resilient and efficient American transportation will be.

So far, industry experts see hope in Biden administration proposals that include an additional $30 billion for transportation in the pandemic relief bill. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg had high marks on his transit report card while mayor of South Bend, Indiana. With coronavirus cases now well below this winter’s surge, America’s trains and buses may be on track to keep running on time.

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Urban transit took a pandemic wallop. Can it bounce back?

Precipitous drops in ridership brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted America’s public transit systems at their core.

As funding withers and services diminish, experts worry the pandemic may reduce transit capacity for years to come. If ridership doesn’t rebound soon, some researchers warn, major cities face a looming “carpocalypse.”

Experts say ensuring the country’s trains and buses keep running on time will require robust federal and local investment, and rebuilding public trust in transit safety.

How tough is transit’s situation?

They’re in crisis. Since the pandemic began last year, anxiety over COVID-19 and a nationwide shift to teleworking plummeted ridership.

“The global transit ridership trend ... last year was bad across the globe. But in the U.S. it was a free fall,” says John Gahbauer, a staff researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of Transportation Studies.

Public transit faltered amid the country’s poor control of the pandemic, as concerns climbed about being in public spaces – buses and trains included. Though numbers vary by region, average ridership decreased by 58% nationally between March and August of 2020, according to Mr. Gahbauer’s research

That enormous dip and slow recovery since have dried up the two main sources of revenue for mass transit: rider fares and public funding. Suddenly desperate to remain solvent, many transit systems contracted their schedules, even while attempting to serve the essential workers who depend on their services. The longer the pandemic disrupts regular life, the more likely it is that economic inequality will increase from the slowdown.

“Cutting out [essential workers’] mobility and accessibility just makes things harder for them,” says Harvey Miller, chair in geographic information science at Ohio State University. “It creates bigger barriers, it creates more social exclusion, and it creates more social inequality.”

How will this year alter the future battle lines?

Primarily, it makes reducing transportation’s role in climate change even more difficult. 

To meet climate goals recommended by the scientific community, experts agree that car travel must play a smaller role in global transportation. In normal times public transit offers a sustainable and cost-effective alternative, but less so in a pandemic – where human and environmental health can feel like a zero-sum game. 

“There’s a bit of a tension between what’s going on with this pandemic and our long-term future in terms of sustainable, equitable, and resilient mobility systems,” says Professor Miller.

Self-driving cars offer some hope to reduce pollution in the near future. Yet progress has been slow, says Professor Miller, and autonomous vehicles aren’t likely to enter city streets within the decade. Even at their electrified best, he says, cars are still an inefficient form of transportation, and hence an imperfect solution to the climate crisis.

In his opinion, the moment demands a grand shift in thought. If viewed as a foundational piece of urban infrastructure, public transit could expand this decade and cement a larger role in the transportation ecosystem. Permitting residents a larger menu of options when traveling – say biking, walking, or riding buses or subways – would help conserve city space, lower spending, and protect the environment.

What signals has the Biden administration sent?

So far, many industry experts like what they hear. 

Newly appointed Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg invested in sustainable transportation when he served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The administration has communicated that public transit will be a key part of its agenda on issues of climate and social equity, says Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.

“We’re very optimistic,” says Mr. Skoutelas. “They really understand and see the importance of transit and its relationship to the functioning and well-being of our cities.” 

Most pressing now is more funding, to replenish the lifeline offered last year by the CARES Act. The Biden administration’s proposed pandemic relief bill earmarks an additional $30 billion for transportation

Just as important, though, is addressing the pandemic and its chilling effect on ridership. An effective public health response is the first step to filling buses and trains across the country. 

“As with so many things, the sooner we can go back to normal in a health context, the better we’ll be and transit will be,” says Mr. Gahbauer at UCLA.

The internet breaks too easily. Can that be fixed?

“Alexa, turn the lights back on and restore power ... Hello? Alexa?” As the Internet of Things controls more household devices, some say it’s time to shift away from centralized hubs. 

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Joe Brown’s moment of clarity came in the dark. A father and a tech enthusiast, he figured that linking his Wi-Fi enabled light bulbs to his Google Home speaker would allow him to adjust the lights with his voice while his hands were busy. 

And it did, most of the time, until last December, when a Google outage rendered the lights useless. A month earlier, an outage at Amazon disabled doorbells, vacuums, and thermostats up and down the East Coast. That outage also crashed newspapers and e-commerce sites, disrupted ride-hailing and food-delivery apps, and blocked people from accessing their bank accounts.

“Some services have become the central hub of most of the internet traffic,” says Primavera De Filippi, a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. 

Can these single points of failure be avoided? A number of efforts are underway to help restore the decentralized network envisioned in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, when he created the World Wide Web. These include using mesh networking, having multiple services to use as backups, and – an idea promoted by Mr. Berners-Lee himself, creating “pods” where users can store their personal data and control who sees it.

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The internet breaks too easily. Can that be fixed?

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
An Amazon Echo (left) and a Google Home are displayed in New York on June 14, 2018. As more devices and appliances are web-connected in people's homes and offices, questions of internet reliability have grown in importance.

Joe Brown thought he had it all figured out: By installing lights compatible with his Google Home, the former Popular Science editor could control the lights in his toddler’s room with his voice each morning while his hands were occupied taking care of her.

Then came the Google outage. Suddenly, Mr. Brown, who now works for Hearst Magazines, found himself unable to turn on the lights.

“You rarely have a free hand when you have a baby,” he says. When he found himself stuck in the dark, all he could do was laugh. 

As tech companies increasingly promote the so-called Internet of Things, anything from doorbells to thermostats can be connected to the cloud. It means convenience but also risk, as some users discovered during a November outage at Amazon and a December outage at Google. These previously analog devices can become inoperable because of a single failure at one company miles away. So can large swaths of the internet, especially as just three companies account for 60% of the cloud market.

“People tend to forget that clouds are just computer servers, right? So we’re still down to all the mechanical, all the weather, electricity, water supply, cooling [malfunctions],” says Mehdi Daoudi, CEO of tech company Catchpoint.  

Having a Plan B 

This isn’t how Tim Berners-Lee envisioned things when, in 1989, he created the World Wide Web. Despite his vision of a decentralized web “for everyone,” the internet has instead become dominated by a few big companies. That concentration can lead to widespread outages from single failures at Amazon or Google, and also less tangible – but still pressing – problems, such as concerns about data privacy and censorship. And though changing the current landscape of the internet may seem daunting, some activists and companies are willing to try. 

“Saying that the internet is centralized is perhaps a little bit inaccurate. … It’s just that some services have become the central hub of most of the internet traffic,” says Primavera De Filippi, a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. And with online activity heavily concentrated in the most dominant firms, those giants wield enormous power, from controlling users’ data privacy to choosing what websites to host to being the single point of success – or failure – for the services they run. 

“And basically that means we are delegating, to them, the choice,” on how the platforms are run and how our data is used, she says. “And they can change at any point the structure of the platform.”

Mr. Brown’s situation might seem like a niche problem, relegated to the type of people who go for things like app-controlled vacuums. But the November and December outages are simply the latest cloud crashes that have taken large parts of the internet with them. In November, during the Amazon Web Services outage, users reported issues with everything ranging from accessing their bank and using ride-hailing services. Food delivery apps faltered, and e-commerce and newspaper websites crashed. Whenever the popular messaging service Slack goes down – as it did on the first work day of 2021 – companies that use it can suddenly find themselves in a position where their employees can’t communicate with each other.

When it comes to surviving outages, Mr. Daoudi recommends companies having as many backups as they can afford. He noted, for example, that his company maintains multiple video-conferencing subscriptions, even though employees primarily use Zoom. He spells out a hypothetical: “For a company, let’s say, that has an e-commerce platform and they’re down. Well, do you have a website hosted somewhere [on a different server or cloud] that you can redirect people to to just say, ‘We’re temporarily having issues. Please come back later. Here is a coupon.’?”

On Solid ground? 

As partial outages on the internet have been rising, big firms like Amazon aren’t sitting still. They don’t want disappointed customers, and are trying to create more robust systems.

But some people are questioning existing models. They ask: What about doing more than just surviving outages – what if there was a way to challenge the primacy of large tech companies, especially when it comes to the control they have over users’ data?

That’s the goal of Solid, a new project from Mr. Berners-Lee, which aims to put more control of data in users’ hands by having users – rather than tech companies or websites – store their data in individually controlled pods, with others able to access limited amounts only with direct permission. Davi Ottenheimer, vice president of trust and digital ethics at Inrupt, a firm that helps create Solid-compliant commercial products, says it flips traditional data-privacy practices on their head.

“One of the questions I get asked a lot is how does this change the idea that people can get information about me?” Mr. Ottenheimer says. “So you would give people consent to have [your] data or access to data for the purposes of a very specific thing … and it doesn’t get stored.” If the model becomes popular enough, Mr. Ottenheimer says, eventually big tech companies will have to adapt to changing customer preferences that demand stronger data protection. 

Another popular way to both secure data privacy and fight against single points of failure has been mesh networking, which at its most basic, is a network design where nodes are connected through multiple points rather than a single route. In New York, the practice has been adopted by the group NYC Mesh to create a Wi-Fi service users can connect to by installing a wireless router on their roof or balcony that connects to other nearby users. The result is an internet connection that doesn’t store data, and bypasses corporate internet service providers, says organizer Brian Hall. Users are asked to set up recurring monthly donations to offset costs, in lieu of subscriptions.

The mesh networks still link people onto the regular internet, but they show that different models are possible. And if the rest of the web went dark, users of the mesh system would still have one another to be online with.

All in all, Mr. Brown’s outage wasn’t the end of the world. He didn’t feel like the methods to manually override the lights were worth the hassle, so he just carried on in the dark. And if the Google outage didn’t fix itself, he would have simply put in a normal lightbulb. 

He hasn’t sworn off smart products, either – he still has the lights that temporarily failed him during the Google outage. But reflecting on some recent remodeling work he did in his kitchen, he noticed something.

“I did just put some new lights in my kitchen. I wired in some new junction boxes,” Mr. Brown says. “And I did not connect them to the cloud.”

Essay

Fair or not, the race of Biden’s EPA nominee raises expectations

No one can single-handedly solve the nation’s environmental challenges. Listening to citizens, our commentator argues, will be critical to success.

Caroline Brehman/AP
Michael Regan, nominee for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, gets a hug from his son, Matthew, after his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 3, 2021. Mr. Regan would be the first Black man to head the EPA.

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Michael Regan, President Joe Biden’s nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, has a leadership model that suggests he wants to hear from the people. In his current capacity as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, he founded the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board to “elevate the voices of the underserved and underrepresented as we work to protect the public’s health and natural resources.”

Yet, while his concern for community has been applauded, his response to business interests has been criticized, including his recent decision to issue a five-year permit for swine operations without requiring significant adjustments to their management of hog waste.

If selected, Mr. Regan would be the first Black man to head the EPA. That distinction, combined with his degree from a historically Black university, means he will be looked upon to lead with a conscience that is mindful of the history of environmental racism.

Yet, even with Mr. Biden’s backing, Mr. Regan won’t be able to succeed alone. Communities have a role to play as well in steering the country toward more just environmental policies and practices.

That kind of unified approach might change more than the environmental condition of our country. It might signal a change in political climate as well.

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Fair or not, the race of Biden’s EPA nominee raises expectations

Michael Regan, President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been celebrated in the short term in the spirit of bipartisanship. Four Republicans joined all the Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in moving Mr. Regan’s nomination to the full Senate.

In addition, Mr. Regan, currently serving as the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), has garnered praise from environmentalists and is seen as a stark and needed change from the previous administration.

It is important to ask, though: How far will those changes go? And who will have a voice in them?

When we think of the EPA, we imagine conversations about climate change and hydraulic fracturing. Yet the role of the agency decisively ties into the relationship between working-class people and corporations. Within the context of that relationship, protecting the environment should mean protecting – and listening to – the people.

Mr. Regan’s leadership model in North Carolina suggests that he wants to hear from the people. He founded the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board in 2018, a group specifically designed, he said, to “help us elevate the voices of the underserved and underrepresented as we work to protect the public’s health and natural resources.”

Yet, while his concern for community has been applauded, his response to business interests has been criticized.

In 2017, just after Mr. Regan took office, the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office expressed concerns about people of color being disproportionately affected by hog farm waste. Yet two years later, the department, well established under Mr. Regan’s leadership by then, issued a five-year permit for swine operations that required adjustments environmentalists felt were far too minor. In particular, it continued to allow “a blatantly unfair and dangerous industry to manage waste in the exact same way, … unfairly and illegally extracting a disproportionate cost from communities of color,” river-keeper Katy Langley Hunt told Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies.

The history of environmental racism

Whether fair or not, high expectations have been placed on Mr. Regan because of his race and his roots. If selected, Mr. Regan would be the first Black man to head the EPA, after having been the first African American to lead the NCDEQ. That distinction, combined with his degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically Black school, means Mr. Regan will be looked upon to lead with a conscience that is mindful of the history of environmental racism.

That history is extensive – in North Carolina alone. In 1972, after months of fighting the placement of a landfill in Rogers-Eubanks, a predominantly African American community just outside Chapel Hill, residents agreed to accept the landfill in exchange for sewer services and construction of a community center. It would take more than 40 years for the community center to come to fruition in 2014, and sewer infrastructure was completed in 2019.

During that time, a flashpoint of the environmental justice movement in this country happened in Afton, North Carolina – once again, around the placement of a landfill. Afton, in Warren County, a low-income area with a high percentage of the state’s Black residents, was marked by the state to host a hazardous waste landfill. The NAACP and other activists, including Benjamin Chavis, who would later be appointed to then-President Bill Clinton’s National Resources transition team, began a series of protests in response to the decision, including obstructing trucks bringing material to the landfill. More than 500 people were arrested. Though protesters were not successful in stopping the landfill, they drew considerable attention to the need for environmental justice.  

Will urgency mean inclusivity?

If Mr. Regan’s appointment is approved, EPA challenges won’t be his to face alone – they rest on the entirety of the Biden administration, which has touted diversity, saying that it wants to “build an administration that looks like America.”

Mr. Regan fits that model and has made comments in tune with President Biden’s with regard to climate change. “We will move with a sense of urgency on climate change, and we will stand up for environmental justice and equity,” Mr. Regan told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Feb. 3.

One thing is clear: If Mr. Regan is appointed, his approach will be profoundly different from that of the last administration, which literally deleted the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” from many EPA webpages and rolled back both regulations and staff.

While the challenges and failures of the EPA shouldn’t be relegated to one party, Mr. Regan, if appointed, will have a unique opportunity to turn the department in a winning direction. And part of his motivation is literally inside of him. As a child, he used an inhaler for a respiratory condition linked to pollution from factories and power plants in his native North Carolina.

Yet, even with Mr. Biden’s backing, Mr. Regan won’t be able to succeed on his own. As the Afton landfill example illustrates, communities have a role to play in steering the country toward more just environmental policies and practices.

That kind of unified approach might change more than the environmental condition of our country and world. It might signal a change in political climate as well.

Ken Makin is the host of the “Makin’ A Difference” podcast.

Third acts: Some older adults are rejecting lives of leisure – on purpose

In this story, my co-author and I talked with Americans who've embarked upon new activities and occupations in their golden years. For example, 91-year-old Sylvia Anthony runs a homeless shelter. They're shrugging off societal limitations and finding joyful purpose.

Deja View Photography/Courtesy of the Marshalls
Victoria and David Marshall founded 3rd Act Magazine in 2016, hoping to offer another vision for older adults. Ms. Marshall says the people featured in the publication “don’t just live lives of leisure. They’re really focused on lifelong learning, growing, expanding."

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A handful of years ago, Victoria and David Marshall started 3rd Act Magazine to chronicle how older Americans are blooming. It was borne out of the Marshalls’ own experience: After retiring early, Ms. Marshall, especially, found she needed a sense of purpose. 

“I’ve learned so much by getting to meet and work with people who really get aging right,” she says. “They don’t just live lives of leisure. They’re really focused on lifelong learning, growing, expanding.”

Retirement, and even the years preceding it, are often considered fallow – a winding down, a twilight. But older adults are seeing an opportunity for what more are calling, as the Marshalls do, a “third act.” While that can mean embracing a new pastime, some are embarking upon more ambitious undertakings: starting new businesses, entering new occupations, or devoting themselves to philanthropic endeavors. In the process, they are becoming exemplars for the more than 54 million Americans age 65 and above. 

“If the first act of life is mostly about education and youthful exuberance,” says Larry Samuel, founder of Age Friendly Consulting, “and the second act mostly about career and family, the third act of life is about the pursuit of wisdom, self-actualization, and leaving some kind of legacy.”  

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Third acts: Some older adults are rejecting lives of leisure – on purpose

When Judi Henderson-Townsend left a Bay Area tech company to start selling mannequins, people told her she was crazy. So she named her company Mannequin Madness. (Tagline: “We work with a bunch of stiffs and we love it!”) That was in 2001. The entrepreneur says she wouldn’t have had the confidence to run an out-of-the-ordinary business when she was younger. Back then she was too concerned with the validation of others.

Since the pandemic, she’s pivoted to launch an entirely new sideline business: a studio for pet photography. She’s had so many creative ideas that she jokes that “retirement” is not even in her vocabulary.   

“It’s not as if I’m trying to be younger, but I tease and I call myself a ‘senior millennial,’” says Ms. Henderson-Townsend. “Your spirit is open and receptive and likes change ... that is ageless.” 

Retirement, and even the years preceding it, are often considered fallow – a winding down, a twilight. But older adults are seeing an opportunity for what more are calling a “third act.” While that can mean embracing a new pastime, some are embarking upon more ambitious undertakings: starting new businesses, entering new occupations, or devoting themselves to philanthropic endeavors. In the process, they are becoming exemplars for the more than 54 million Americans age 65 and older. Like the many in Generation X who helped society understand what it meant to be single and happy after age 30, these baby boomer-and-above adults are helping their peers and communities see a range of possibilities for the golden years as longevity increases.

“The most important thing about older adults is they’re not done yet,” says Larry Samuel, author and founder of Age Friendly Consulting. “If the first act of life is mostly about education and youthful exuberance, and the second act mostly about career and family, the third act of life is about the pursuit of wisdom, self-actualization, and leaving some kind of legacy.” 

Courtesy of Judi Townsend
Judi Henderson-Townsend left a Bay Area tech company to start selling mannequins. The entrepreneur, who calls herself a "senior millennial," says she wouldn’t have had the confidence to run an out-of-the-ordinary business when she was younger.

In general, people are living longer than ever. Since the turn of the millennium, global life expectancy has increased at the fastest rate since the 1960s. A February 2020 report by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that by 2060, life expectancy will have increased by about six years for the entire population. How the pandemic may affect that remains to be seen. But if the statistics hold, role models may be even more in demand.

To that end, in 2016, Victoria and David Marshall started 3rd Act Magazine to chronicle how some older Americans are blooming. One 2020 edition, for example, details how Keith Johnson took up the sport of snowshoe running when he reached 65. Now in his early 70s, he won the bronze medal for the U.S. in his division at last year’s World Cup in Japan. The individuals profiled in the magazine exemplify how to live fulfilling lives, says Ms. Marshall. 

“I’ve learned so much by getting to meet and work with people who really get aging right,” says Ms. Marshall. “They don’t just live lives of leisure. They’re really focused on lifelong learning, growing, expanding, and staying physically active, staying socially engaged – staying engaged, period.”

The magazine was borne out of the Marshalls’ own experience. The couple had attained their goal of retiring early. He’d left a lifelong career as an engineer at Boeing in Seattle. She’d sold her tourist-map business. They were, as Ms. Marshall puts it, “ready to ride into the sunset.” But a few years into their new lifestyle, Ms. Marshall experienced a personal crisis. She was listless and suddenly aware of age.

“I was getting sick,” says Ms. Marshall, who had previously enjoyed good health. “I needed to really change my focus around aging. And I realized that I needed a purpose.”

The search for meaningful activity underscores many third acts. But some older adults also need more money to underwrite an unanticipated period of longevity, says Elizabeth Isele, founder of the Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship (GIEE) near Portland, Maine. Many in that situation start a new venture. A 2019 study by the University of Michigan concluded that entrepreneurs over the age of 50 are two to three times more likely to form a new business than take a job in the gig economy. 

Older adults often possess an additional vital quality: resilience. They’ve experienced failure and learned that it’s possible to survive and come out stronger and wiser for it. That hardy pluck has enabled some older entrepreneurs to weather the COVID-19 pandemic better than younger generations that haven’t encountered strong head winds before. 

“When we measure age chronologically, we’re looking back at our lives and our accomplishments,” says Ms. Isele, who founded the GIEE in her 70s. “We have to stop thinking about our experience as our epitaphs. It is what we have done in the past, but it’s also the potential to build on that. It’s our future.” 

Mr. Samuel of Age Friendly Consulting echoes that idea, adding that baby boomers are changing the timeworn perception that the post-employment stage of life is an epilogue to the main body of work. “It’s a cultural pivot that will perhaps serve as their greatest legacy,” he says.

Courtesy of Michelle Fishburne
Last summer, Michelle Fishburne (center) lost her job in public relations. When her lease was up, she set off in her RV for a cross-country trip to film interviews with ordinary Americans about their pandemic experiences for a project called Who We Are Now, which is slated to become a book.

Last year, Michelle Fishburne discovered that skills she accumulated during her prior careers paved the way for an entirely new third act. The 57-year-old had been laid off and during her subsequent job search had written 86 personalized cover letters – with no responses. With her lease about to expire, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, resident had an epiphany: She could live in her motor home.

Another idea arrived like a “lightning bolt,” she says: Why not roam the country and ask ordinary Americans about how the pandemic has changed them? Her project, Who We Are Now, is slated to become a book. Interviewing people and telling stories felt like familiar ground to the former international corporate attorney and director of public relations. She chalks up her successful pivot to “plasticity” – remaining flexible by continually challenging oneself to keep learning.

“You need to be humble to learn things that are new,” says Ms. Fishburne, who notes she has developed wisdom and grace with age. “I’m really excited to see what I’m doing 10 years from now.”

Los Angeles-based Ida Talalla is another storyteller. At age 81, she has learned how to use filmmaking equipment. 

“It’s a new medium for me,” says Ms. Talalla, who was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and has had several careers, including textile artist, educator, and environmental activist. “I’ve had the opportunity to explore art in a way I never would have expected.”

Ms. Talalla is an artist-in-residence at Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles. With funding from groups like AARP and the National Endowment for the Arts, she and other older adults are able to work on film projects. With financial support, she bought a laptop and camera equipment. “Reflections,” her self-made autobiography, premiered at the film center in late 2019.

As a member of the advisory council for the L.A. Department of Aging, she is constantly pushing back against the idea that older people can’t or shouldn’t contribute to creative spaces.

“Seniors can do a lot of creative work. When we’re gone, what are we leaving behind?” she says. “It takes funding and effort, but why not give us the tools? Why not allow us to contribute?"

That question of legacy looms large for many older adults. At 91, however, Bostonian Sylvia Anthony isn’t thinking in those terms. She’s too busy preparing for a refresher course in real estate after renewing a lapsed license. She wants to funnel the proceeds from that job into Sylvia’s Haven, the shelter for homeless women and children that she founded at age 57. 

Back then, she was newly widowed and had spent most of her life raising children. But, as she puts it, she didn’t want to sit on her haunches and retire. For a while, Ms. Anthony ran the second-largest shelter in the United States. Sylvia’s Haven now operates on a more modest scale, but its founder says the pandemic hasn’t stopped her from remaining busy. Last year, Ms. Anthony was honored by the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. She drove the 700-mile round trip to the ceremony by herself.

“I don’t feel old at all,” says Ms. Anthony, who has also published a memoir, “Till the End of Time.” “If you live that way, you won’t be tired. You won’t be disappointed. You will have something to live for, something that will keep you going – and you’ll enjoy every minute of it.” 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the year that Judi Henderson-Townsend started her mannequin business. 

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The only path for India, Pakistan

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In the digital universe, the young netizens in India and Pakistan have no problem sharing across a tense border between the two rival states. The latest example is an Instagram video of a Pakistani teenager suggesting people need to party. It went viral in India, sparking joyous spinoffs. This neighborly culture is just one of many backdrops that help explain why India and Pakistan have restored a 2003 truce in disputed Kashmir. More importantly, they agreed to address each other’s “core issues.”

Perhaps the biggest backdrop to the agreement is that the two countries can no longer afford military conflict. They have fought three wars since they each gained independence from Britain in 1947. Pakistan’s economy is now on the ropes, requiring massive foreign loans, while India has its hands full with a dangerous dispute with China over Himalayan territory and a domestic revolt by farmers.

A peace dialogue needs to show quickly that diplomacy can produce results faster than continued violence around Kashmir. Many young people on both sides are already digitally linked. They see more what’s in common than what is not. That would be worth celebrating.

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The only path for India, Pakistan

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Pakistan soldiers take positions in 2016 at Bagsar, a forward post on the Line of Control, that divides Kashmir between Pakistan and India.

In the digital universe, the young netizens in India and Pakistan have no problem sharing across a tense and often violent border between the two rival states. The latest example is an Instagram video of a Pakistani teenage influencer suggesting people need to party (“pawri”). It went viral in India, sparking joyous spinoffs. Young people also revel in each country’s movies and cricket teams. This neighborly culture is just one of many backdrops that help explain why India and Pakistan have restored a 2003 truce in disputed Kashmir. More importantly, they agreed to address each other’s “core issues.”

Perhaps the biggest backdrop to the agreement is that the two countries, both nuclear-armed, can no longer afford military conflict. They have fought three wars and had frequent flare-ups since they each gained independence from Britain in 1947. Pakistan’s economy is now on the ropes, requiring massive foreign loans, while India has its hands full with a dangerous dispute with China over Himalayan territory and a domestic revolt by farmers.

The very old turf war in Kashmir, long exploited by extremists on both sides, seems minor in light of modern concerns and opportunities. “Dialogue is the only way forward if both countries want to stop the unending cycle of violence & bloodshed across the borders,” tweeted a prominent Kashmiri politician, Mehbooba Mufti.

For his part, Pakistan’s prime minister, former famed cricketer Imran Khan, agrees that talks are the best path. As for a reason, he said, “The only way the subcontinent can tackle poverty is by improving trade relations.” Few goods travel between India and Pakistan compared with trade between other countries.

His chief national security aide, Moeed Yusuf, claims the agreement is a “very solid and positive” development that will allow “more roads to open.” The two countries, one largely Muslim and the other largely Hindu, have many ways to overcome their deep suspicions of each other. A long-lasting truce in the 460-mile-long unofficial frontier in Kashmir would be just a start. Any reconciliation would need to extend into military and trade areas. They would also have to deal with their diverging narratives of their shared past, something that drives nationalists in each country.

A peace dialogue needs to show quickly that diplomacy can produce results faster than continued violence around Kashmir. Many young people on both sides are already digitally linked. They see more what’s in common than what is not. That would be worth celebrating.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Never cut off from good

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No matter what the world throws at us, God’s unlimited goodness and love are here to quell anxiety and inspire healing and solutions – as a woman and her husband experienced when faced with overwhelming financial difficulties.

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Never cut off from good

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

“A client burst into tears on the phone.” I heard a banker describe this recently and wondered how much this might be happening these days with current economic conditions rough for so many. It was touching to hear how the banker responded. He assured the client financial assistance was available, and then offered to keep them in his prayers, which the client gratefully welcomed.

This gentle offer points to the idea that in the midst of daunting circumstances that have us feeling fearful about how our needs are going to be met, prayer can help. I’ve found that turning in prayer to the infinite presence of the Divine opens our eyes to God’s unlimited goodness, which is always at hand. As the words of Psalm 23 in the Bible say of God, “Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life” (verse 6, New Living Translation).

At the very heart of this promise is what the first chapter of Genesis teaches about our nature and substance being Godlike, made in God’s image. As such, we are spiritual, and express the nature of our divine creator – including the boundless capacity to love and do good.

The more consistently I’ve prayed to affirm our inseparability from the infinite goodness of God’s being, the freer I’ve felt from worry about finances. It’s kept me from feeling overwhelmed during tough times by lifting me above a limited, material view of a situation to the realization that divine Spirit inexhaustibly sustains us. This has brought peace and inspired solutions.

Years ago, my husband and I went through some rough financial waters due to an unjust work situation. Our savings flew out the door each month until we couldn’t afford our rent. Within a period of several weeks we sold or gave away most of our belongings, and then headed out in our car to another part of the country without knowing where we’d be living. On top of this, I was struggling periodically with overwhelming anxiety and severe tension in my chest.

One day when we arrived in our new location, living in temporary housing, I was experiencing these issues and asked someone in the full-time practice of Christian Science healing to pray with me. This Christian Science practitioner encouraged me to feel the constant support of God’s love and sustaining presence.

It was a turning point. I stopped fixating on what looked like limited resources and changing circumstances and prayed to be more alert to the divine Love that takes care of everyone.

Jesus preached that we should seek above all else to know the present spiritual realm or reality of God (see Matthew 6:31-33). This sets us free from worry and meets our practical needs. Jesus taught and proved that the infinite divine Spirit that sustains us is always present and always enough.

This is also what Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, assures us of through an ever-encouraging line at the beginning of her primary text on Christian healing: “To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, to-day is big with blessings” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. vii).

Over several months, I prayed to humbly accept and totally lean on the good divine Spirit supplies each moment. This divine goodness fills our whole being with boundless attributes such as unselfishness, kindness, and gratitude so we can generously share them and bless others.

An overall feeling of peace descended, and I was freed from the bouts of anxiety and chest constriction. It was the result of the healing Christ – God’s sustaining love making itself known.

Soon we found a nice place to live with a rent way below what the landlord could have asked. New ideas for how to move forward dawned, and steadily new opportunities and sources of income opened up for both of us. The unjust work situation resolved amicably as well. My husband’s prayers also contributed so much to this good growth.

What’s most wonderful is that the more expansive view of God we gained through all of this has better equipped us to pray and help others who’ve faced similar challenges find healing, peace, and progress too.

No matter what the world throws at us, we can’t ever be cut off from God’s unlimited goodness and love. Each moment we pray and realize this, we contribute to the spiritual confidence and calm that foster greater economic stability and progress.

Some more great ideas! To read an article on praying for peace and an end to politically motivated violence, please click through to a recent article on www.JSH-Online.com titled “How are you praying about recent events in Washington, DC?” There is no paywall for this content.

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A quiet resister

AP
A child standing among anti-coup protesters flashes the three-fingered salute of solidarity and resistance in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 25, 2021. Protesters challenging the military’s seizure of power in Myanmar were back on the streets of cities and towns. On the child’s face: thanaka, a paste made from ground bark that is often used for decorative purposes and sometimes as a balm.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for spending time with our stories today. Tomorrow’s package of stories includes a look at what’s motivating calls for the U.S. to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.

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